Scepticism about technological determinism emerged alongside increased pessimism about techno-science in the mid-20th century, in particular around the use of nuclear energy in the production of nuclear weapons, Nazi human experimentation during World War II, and the problems of economic development in the third world. As a direct consequence, desire for greater control of the course of development of technology gave rise to disenchantment with the model of technological determinism in academia.
Modern theorists of technology and society no longer consider technological determinism to be a very accurate view of the way in which we interact with technology, even though determinist assumptions and language fairly saturate the writings of many boosters of technology, the business pages of many popular magazines, and much reporting on technology. Instead, research in science and technology studies, social construction of technology and related fields have emphasised more nuanced views that resist easy causal formulations. They emphasise that “The relationship between technology and society cannot be reduced to a simplistic cause-and-effect formula. It is, rather, an ‘intertwining'”, whereby technology does not determine but “…operates, and are operated upon in a complex social field” (Murphie and Potts).
In his article “Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power and Democracy with Technology,” Andrew Feenberg argues that technological determinism is not a very well founded concept by illustrating that two of the founding theses of determinism are easily questionable and in doing so calls for what he calls democratic rationalization (Feenberg 210–212).
Prominent opposition to technologically determinist thinking has emerged within work on the social construction of technology (SCOT). SCOT research, such as that of Mackenzie and Wajcman (1997) argues that the path of innovation and its social consequences are strongly, if not entirely shaped by society itself through the influence of culture, politics, economic arrangements, regulatory mechanisms and the like. In its strongest form, verging on social determinism, “What matters is not the technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded” (Langdon Winner).
In his influential but contested (see Woolgar and Cooper, 1999) article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, Langdon Winner illustrates a form of technological determinism by elaborating instances in which artifacts can have politics.
Although “The deterministic model of technology is widely propagated in society” (Sarah Miller), it has also been widely questioned by scholars. Lelia Green explains that, “When technology was perceived as being outside society, it made sense to talk about technology as neutral”. Yet, this idea fails to take into account that culture is not fixed and society is dynamic. When “Technology is implicated in social processes, there is nothing neutral about society” (Lelia Green). This confirms one of the major problems with “technological determinism and the resulting denial of human responsibility for change. There is a loss of human involvement that shape technology and society” (Sarah Miller).
Another conflicting idea is that of technological somnambulism, a term coined by Winner in his essay “Technology as Forms of Life”. Winner wonders whether or not we are simply sleepwalking through our existence with little concern or knowledge as to how we truly interact with technology. In this view it is still possible for us to wake up and once again take control of the direction in which we are traveling (Winner 104). However, it requires society to adopt Ralph Schroeder’s claim that, “users don’t just passively consume technology, but actively transform it”.
In opposition to technological determinism are those who subscribe to the belief of social determinism and postmodernism. Social determinists believe that social circumstances alone select which technologies are adopted, with the result that no technology can be considered “inevitable” solely on its own merits. Technology and culture are not neutral and when knowledge comes into the equation, technology becomes implicated in social processes. The knowledge of how to create and enhance technology, and of how to use technology is socially bound knowledge. Postmodernists take another view, suggesting that what is right or wrong is dependent on circumstance. They
believe technological change can have implications on the past, present and future. While they believe technological change is influenced by changes in government policy, society and culture, they consider the notion of change to be a paradox, since change is constant.
Media and cultural studies theorist Brian Winston, in response to technological determinism, developed a model for the emergence of new technologies which is centered on the Law of the suppression of radical potential. In two of his books – Technologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinematography and Television (1997) and Media Technology and Society (1998) – Winston applied this model to show how technologies evolve over time, and how their ‘invention’ is mediated and controlled by society and societal factors which suppress the radical potential of a given technology.